Olson: With few survivors, advocacy falls to us


The London Run for Ovarian Cancer began in 2003, organized by Ann Crowley – a woman with ovarian cancer, who died just a few months after the first run. The 15th run will be held on Mother’s Day, May 14. It is likely this year’s run will bring the total raised to $2 million. All proceeds of the run support research on ovarian cancer being conducted right here in London at the London Regional Cancer Clinic. The Translational Ovarian Cancer Research Laboratory is engaged in cutting-edge research. Prior to the London Run for Ovarian Cancer, no research on ovarian cancer was being conducted in London.

In 2009, I became involved in the run after my wife, Mary, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in November 2008. At first, I was a participant in a team Mary organized. Then, I joined the executive committee, which organizes the run, and this year will be my fifth year as chair of the executive committee.

Mary was 54 when she was diagnosed; our two daughters were 22 and 19. Mary had always adhered to a healthy lifestyle – she never smoked or drank alcohol and she exercised regularly. So, it was a shock when she became sick.

Ovarian cancer is called “the disease that whispers” because its symptoms are vague and easy to miss, such as feeling tired or experiencing abdominal discomfort. Therefore, women are often not diagnosed until the cancer is quite advanced. Such was the case with Mary – she was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer, which means the cancer had spread from the ovaries into the lining of the abdomen.

Approximately 30 per cent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer survive for five years. Ovarian cancer is the deadliest women’s cancer. Mary passed away in December 2013 – exactly five years and one month after her diagnosis. She ‘beat the odds’ in that she was part of the 30 per cent who survive five years, for which our family is grateful. But we would be more grateful if she had been cured.

Ovarian cancer cells are extremely difficult to destroy, because they often mutate into new forms, even within the same woman. There is no early detection test, so women fare poorly when they are finally diagnosed. The treatments typically involve surgery to remove as much cancer as possible and then chemotherapy, which essentially blasts the body with toxic chemicals that kill cancer cells, but also healthy cells. Mary endured two major surgeries and three different kinds of chemotherapy. Because of this, she experienced numerous health side-effects that made her life more difficult.

Like all families facing cancer, we tried to prevent our lives from becoming defined by the disease, but it is difficult when there is so much pain from surgeries and so much nausea from chemotherapies and the cancer itself. Nonetheless, we did our best and enjoyed many happy times with family and friends. Mary was thankful she survived long enough to meet her first grandson, who was born in April 2012. She did not quite meet her second grandson, who was born in January 2014, just one month after Mary passed away. He will never know a grandmother who would have loved him enormously.

Because most women are diagnosed with advanced cancer, and treatments are not yet very effective, there are relatively few women ‘survivors’ to advocate for research on the disease. So, the job falls to people like me – husbands, family members and friends of ovarian cancer victims. I wish we were doing a better job. Currently, only 2 per cent of funds for cancer research are directed to ovarian cancer.

The run became very important to Mary – it gave her a focus and a way to fight the disease directly. She knew new therapies would almost certainly be too late for her, but she fought for all of the other women she knew and loved, including our two daughters.

Everyone involved in the run is a volunteer – we have about 150 volunteers each year to organize the event, which now attracts about 600 runners. Ovarian cancer will be beaten. It will just take a lot of research. The London Run for Ovarian Cancer is dedicated to contributing to that research.

I invite anyone who is interested to become involved in the run, either as a donor, a participant or a volunteer.  The London community has been incredibly supportive of the event. On behalf of all of the volunteers, I want to express my gratitude for this support. Learn more at runforovariancancer.ca

Jim Olson